CHARLESTON - William Marler has been living in disease for 13 years.
The Seattle attorney first made a name for himself representing Jack in the Box customers who were exposed to the E. coli bacteria in undercooked hamburger. One individual he represented earned more than $15 million in a settlement.
In 1996, '98 and 2001 he earned clients more multi-million-dollar settlements stemming from E. coli outbreaks in restaurants, and in 2003 earned a $6.25 million settlement on behalf of a man who had to have a liver transplant after receiving Hepatitis A at a Chi-Chi's.
His next opponents are Salmonella bacteria, Sheetz and Coronet Foods.
"It's an odd niche," said Marler, who helped form the Seattle law firm Marler Clark after the Jack in the Box case in 1993. "I've been involved in a lot of salmonella outbreaks.
"I had one person in this (Sheetz) outbreak that suffered acute kidney failure. Luckily his kidney function bounced back.
"Salmonella is a nasty bug."
Marler says he plans to file 148 cases against Sheetz and Coronet Foods concerning allegedly Salmonella-infested tomatoes sold in 2004. Most are in Pennsylvania, but he says there are handfuls in West Virginia, Ohio, Virginia in Maryland.
A group of four Sheetz customers have already filed a lawsuit in Tucker Circuit Court and are set for trial in December. They are seeking a total of $70,000.
Two weeks ago, two cases were filed in Ohio Circuit Court against Sheetz and Coronet, Sheetz' tomato supplier.
Michael L. Soloman of Morgantown law firm Soloman and Soloman is handling both of those cases and isn't officially working with Marler, though Marler said he is working with lawyers in the states affected by the outbreak.
"I've been doing cases all over the country," he said. "I have local lawyers who, sort of, work with me on cases."
Though one might question why 148 cases aren't grouped into one class action claim, Marler explained that each individual's settlement differs from others' because the extent of damages incurred by each individual is different in a food-poisoning case.
"Some cases will have settlements below $25,000 and will go to an arbitrator," he said. "A bunch of cases, probably over half of them, will be over $25,000 and frankly, in my view, have settlement or verdict ranges in the hundreds of thousands of dollars."
And because the cases are so spread out and Marler is so far away, he has decided to file all his cases in Allegheny County in Pennsylvania.
"It's the easiest place for everybody to get to, for lawyers and even the clients," Marler said.
Marler is used to these types of procedure when it comes to food-born illness litigation because he's had plenty of experience. He even started Outbreak Inc., a consulting firm for businesses that helps its clients avoid outbreaks like the one Sheetz is dealing with right now.
"By mid-May we hope to be finishing up a series of depositions," Marler said. "We're doing that with the hope that we can convince Sheetz and Coronet that they're not going to be able to point a finger anywhere except themselves.
"We've got these poor people who get poisoned just going to a Sheetz. I represent a range of people who were sick for a week to hospitalized for 10-15 days.
"It's not just a tummy-ache and some diarrhea."